Another gardening year is drawing to an end. It’s time to evaluate and plan for Next Year (which is always the best year). But right now, the gardener is tired—of lugging watering cans, digging holes, and sawing roots while in a bent-over position. Some plants are overgrown, others are moribund. The gardener is oppressed by all the things that must be done—but not right now, because it’s not the right season.
In this rather glum mood, the gardener ponders some harsh truths.
Harsh Truth Number One. Gardening is not a hobby you can put aside when you get tired of it, or something more exciting comes along. Not in a place where constant attention must be paid to watering. Then there’s weeding, staking, tying, and deadheading. And let’s not forget pruning. Forget about those summer camping trips, unless you’re prepared to deal with a mess when you return.
Harsh Truth Number Two. Unless you confine yourself to growing vegetables, annuals, and herbaceous ornamentals, you will have to learn to prune “woody subjects,” such as shrubs and even trees. And then you’ll actually have to do it. Pruning often means cutting off healthy growth that looks like the best part of the plant, trusting that it will have a beneficial effect in the end. That’s hard to do. And after a pruning session, you have to dispose of all the lovely stuff you’ve cut off.
Harsh Truth Number Three. Plants are going to die, despite your best efforts. The new, exciting perennial that’s being touted by all the experts. The marginally hardy shrub you fuss over and cosset, telling yourself that maybe it’s actually grown a bit this year. And sometimes an old reliable blooms better than it ever has, and then suddenly wilts, never to rise again.
Harsh Truth Number Four. Your garden will never look anything like your vision of it at the planning stage, or like those swoon-worthy photos in horticultural magazines. (Remember, though, that those photos capture moments, not seasons.) And no matter how well a plant does in your garden, you will inevitably see it looking better in someone else’s.
Harsh Truth Number Five. You are responsible for your garden, but you’re not really in control of it. Weather—rain (or lack of it), sun, wind, frost—has the last word. Along with fungi, bugs, raccoons, the roots of nearby trees, and the inner workings of plants themselves. The gardener isn’t the supreme commander, but rather a combination of servant, coach, first aid attendant, cleanup crew, and undertaker.
Harsh Truth Number Six. No matter how much hope, love, and sweat you expend on your garden, there’s no guarantee that it will persist beyond your tenure. Once the gardener has shuffled off to the retirement home or downsized to a condo, the garden will change, or even disappear, along with the house, the trees, and the pavements, to be replaced by some architectural monstrosity and instant landscaping. I’ve seen this happen too often where I live. But then, the present house and garden replaced farmland, which in turn replaced wildlife habitat or land inhabited and harvested by indigenous people.
Harsh truths can be overwhelming. After reading the above, one may ask, “So why garden, if it’s so harsh?”
Every gardener will have their own answer. The satisfaction of growing food. A certain amount of exercise. Being outside and forming a relationship with the natural world. I can relate to all of these, but for me the reward comes when I go out into the garden and experience a moment when colours, textures, the relationship of light with the plants, the smells of flowers and earth and living things combine in a form of perfection. These episodes are brief and cannot be commanded, but they outweigh all the harsh truths. It’s as though my acceptance of them, and doing the necessary work, makes a kind of magic.
Gilds the very air,
Makes dust motes into small blessings,
Deepens the hues of leaf and flower.
The gardener stands bemused
At the gateway between day and night,
Clutching secateurs and a handful of spent flowers.
Caught in stillness,
As white flowers become little stars,
And the light fades to blue.